The attack by Israeli commandos on the Freedom Flotilla – the aid ships attempting to break the siege on Gaza – has drawn renewed attention to Israel’s longstanding approach to dealing with peaceful resistance. The deaths aboard the Mavi Marmara at the end of May were by no means an isolated incident, and came as no surprise to participants in or observers of the Palestinian nonviolent struggle.
On the same day as the attacks on the boats, as protests sprung up across the occupied Palestinian territories, an activist was shot in the face with a tear-gas canister, leading to the loss of her left eye.
Protesters had gathered near Qalandia checkpoint, between Jerusalem and Ramallah, where they were confronted by lines of Israeli soldiers. Emily Henochowicz, a 21-year-old US artist and activist, was standing at the front of the demonstration, waving a flag, when soldiers started to fire tear-gas. Soren Johannsen, another of the protesters, explained what happened. ‘They clearly saw us. They clearly saw that we were internationals and it really looked as though they were trying to hit us. They fired many canisters at us in rapid succession. One landed on either side of Emily, then the third one hit her in the face.’
The type of tear-gas canister that was used against Emily is an aluminium cylinder, approximately 10 centimetres long, designed to be fired into the air in a high arc, dispersing gas upon impact with the ground. There have, however, been increasingly frequent reports of soldiers firing canisters at the head or body of protesters, aiming directly at targeted individuals. Eye-witness accounts of what happened to Emily, from journalists, medics and fellow protesters, are all in agreement that the soldier who fired the canister appeared to have every intention of hitting her with it.
What happened to Emily is not a rare occurrence. In the same month, there were two serious head injuries to Palestinian demonstrators caused by low-flying tear-gas canisters. One suffered a fractured skull and a brain haemorrhage after being hit in the forehead. The second was hit in the cheek – treatment for his wound was delayed after the ambulance carrying him was fired upon by soldiers and forced to turn back. There have been numerous other more minor injuries caused by direct hits from canisters.
For many years, there has been criticism levelled at the Israeli military for their misuse of weaponry intended for ‘crowd dispersal’. High-velocity tear-gas canisters, for example, which are intended to smash through walls, have been used repeatedly in open-air situations. Last year, one of these canisters killed Bassem Abu Rahma, opening up a seven centimetre hole in his chest, and another caused severe brain damage to US activist Tristan Anderson.
In March 2010, two teenage boys – Mohammed and Ussayed Qaddous – were shot and killed with live ammunition by Israeli soldiers following a demonstration in the village of Iraq Burin. In April, Ahmed Dib was killed during a demonstration in the ‘buffer zone’ along the edge of the Gaza Strip. Live ammunition has repeatedly been used against unarmed farmers and demonstrators there in recent months.
Many now feel that any inquiry into the deaths aboard the Mavi Marmara, and into the shooting of Emily Henochowicz, should be seen as an opportunity to examine and critique Israel’s habitual use of extreme force against those legitimately protesting against the illegal occupation of Palestinian land.